This week, DNA-testing firm 23AndMe and toymakers GoldieBlox showed off the worst in Silicon Valley arrogance, the idea that because you're "disruptive" you don't have to play by anyone else's rules or consider anyone else's feelings.
The 23AndMe and GoldieBlox controversies just promote the view of Silicon Valley as Ayn Randville, a heartless, cutthroat culture of entitled, self-absorbed people for whom "disruption" is the highest goal. While this sort of attitude clearly spurs innovation, it's time to put the brakes on and show some heart.
GoldieBlox: Engineers Without HeartsA maker of tech toys for girls, GoldieBlox clearly thought it had a smart idea when they turned the Beastie Boys' already-sarcastic song "Girls" into a cheery but humorless girl-power tune. They also didn't think they had to ask permission.
The company's "parody" is much less witty than it appears. One of rap's more politically and socially conscious groups, the Beastie Boys have always been pretty pro-woman. The original lyrics to "Girls" feature a girl with her own mind and sexual agency, who turns down one of the Boys in favor of another. Does he call her names, threaten violence, posture, or rage? Does he act entitled? Nope. He just expresses his "dismay" and laughs it off, with no disrespect.
Who are these boys' types of girls? Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson - not exactly the kinds of women who will put up with being stuck with household chores. Yes, Rick Rubin made them ditch Schellenbach, but after a few years, they ditched Rubin in turn, and recorded an apology to anyone who might have thought them disrespectful towards women on "Sure Shot."
I could probably go on about the Beastie Boys for another several pages, but I won't.
Okay. Back to GoldieBlox. The Beastie Boys have long had a policy of not allowing their music to be used in product advertisements, a policy written into now-deceased member Adam Yauch's will. This isn't about money, it's about principle. According to a statement from the band, when the Beasties sent GoldieBlox a letter saying, "hey, what's up?" GoldieBlox sued them with a speed that clearly showed GoldieBlox was raring for a fight. In a follow-up letter, the Beasties made it clear that they approve of GoldieBlox's social mission, and politely asked them to stop using the song.
Who's in the legal right here? You shouldn't care. The point is, the Beasties asked politely to respect their dead member's wishes, and GoldieBlox said, basically, screw you. GoldieBlox isn't just raising engineers. They're raising selfish, cutthroat engineers who succeed by ignoring other people's feelings.
23AndMe: Technology Above the LawAt least Anne Wojcicki's 23AndMe isn't disrespecting a dead artist and philanthropist. It's just ignoring the government.
23AndMe lives at the junction of technology, medicine, and consumerism, which is a tough place to hang out. Because medical decisions can be life-or-death, the FDA tends to try to keep a handle on the efficacy of products that make health claims.
Testing your DNA for your ancestry is one thing, but testing for tendency towards cancers is another. As Angelina Jolie recently showed, some genes are so dangerous that they can lead people to get preventative mastectomies. With that on the table, the FDA just wanted some scientific proof that 23AndMe's tests work - and the agency gave the company years to figure it out.
But 23AndMe, apparently, just hasn't bothered. Petty government regulators just get in the way of disruption, right? Shouldn't the free market be able to determine the difference between real medicine and snake oil? I really hope that's not a world you want to live in - or if it is, you're the one who ends up consuming the snake oil.
23AndMe is acting humble enough right now, saying that the company is "committed to fully engaging with [the FDA.]" Well, of course; the FDA has the power to shut them down. This couldn't have occurred to them in the past five years?
The bold innovators of Silicon Valley clearly aim to innovate and drag the rest of society behind them into a glorious future, making money along the way. But an attitude that entitled is obviously going to raise some hackles. Technologists need to remember that they aren't above society - they're part of it.